Jack Ohman

Notebook: Let’s not be too hasty about the worst president, or the best

A Quinnipiac University poll last week reported which presidents have been the best and worst since World War II.

Barack Obama showed up in last place, with 33 percent of the respondents. He also polled as the fourth best president, at 8 percent, anemic but ahead of other power hitters like Dwight Eisenhower.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Eisenhower. He won World War II, making this poll question possible. No respect, right?

The art of picking a best president leaves historians scratching their heads. George W. Bush, who didn’t show up very well as a best president (1 percent) and second-worst (at 28 percent) has observed that you never know how historians will judge a chief executive, and it’s not up to him. He’s right.

Harry Truman was reviled toward the end of his term in the early 1950s but has enjoyed a renaissance since his death in 1972. Like painters, sometimes presidents look better in retrospect. Ask Vincent Van Gogh how much he got for his paintings before he died. Wait, that’s not possible. But if it were, he’d be the first to tell you contemporaneous polls, like art critics, don’t mean much.

Ronald Reagan shines amongst the Quinnipiac poll respondents, clocking in at a chunky 33 percent as the best president.

It’s funny; I lived through his entire presidency, and I just don’t remember this Mount Rushmore-worthy geopolitical genius.

I remember a guy who likened the lack of security at the Beirut embassy annex to a slow kitchen remodel, after terrorists blew up a truck bomb killing 241 Americans soldiers. Benghazi, anyone?

The key word is “remember” here. We remember (or forget) lots of things about eras and presidents. John F. Kennedy was turning in middling Gallup Poll numbers immediately before his assassination, for example. Now JFK is thought of as the third best post-war president (15 percent).

Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush have not been as highly rated as some of their post-war peers, and yet each has qualities that would rank them higher than many would think. Carter: incompetent or human rights hero? Nixon: conspirator or foreign policy savant? Bush: over his head or terrorism fighter?

As Obama stands five and a half years into his presidency, it seems a bit premature to judge. He inherited an economic disaster and has turned it around to a 17,000 Dow and unemployment edging toward 6 percent, something that seemed inconceivable in November 2008. Sure, he’s aloof and has had the usual missteps, but the worst?

As for the best, I like another Republican president who didn’t look that good at the end of his second term. I like Ike way better than Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Quinnipiac, tear down this poll.